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Funeral held for family killed by carbon monoxide poisoning

The images were as overwhelming as the tragedy that stunned this Somerset County town two weeks ago.

Eight identical white hearses gleaming in Saturday's sunshine in a driveway. Eight white-draped coffins lined up in an auditorium, their lids open to reveal the bodies of victims arranged from the youngest, a 6-year-old girl, on the right, to the oldest, her 36-year-old father, on the left.

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A steady line of mourners wore expressions of disbelief, numbness and grief as they paid their last respects to the Todd family, a father and seven children who died of carbon monoxide poisoning as they slept.

"It's hard to grasp what has happened. Very hard," said McCain Raymond of Salisbury, his eyes still moist as he stood outside the Ella Fitzgerald Auditorium at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where six hours' worth of services — three for the viewing, three for the funeral — were underway.

Mourners began arriving early for the viewing, streaming in slowly and leaving the 1,200-seat auditorium about one-third full within an hour. By the time the funeral started at 1 p.m., there were no empty seats.

Female ushers in white uniforms handed out fans and pictures of the children. Morticians in dark suits grimly held out boxes of Kleenex.

And men, women and children in everything from formal mourning wear to T-shirts reading "The Todd Family: Gone But Not Forgotten" made their way down a carpeted aisle to the front of the auditorium, where the coffins rested side by side: five girls, two boys and one man. Each was dressed in white, and the caskets were bedecked with heart-shaped floral arrangements contributed by friends.

The children's mother, 36-year-old Tyisha Chambers of Denton, sat quietly in the front row a few feet from the coffins. She did not speak during the service.

Chambers and Rodney Todd, the father, divorced in November.

The family members died sometime before April 6, when police arrived at their rented home on Antioch Avenue and discovered all eight bodies. They also found a power generator with an empty gas tank inside.

Rodney Todd, who worked a $10-an-hour job in dining services at the university, had apparently been using the generator to bring power to the yellow one-story home.

The electricity had been disconnected some time before, said Todd's stepfather, Lloyd Edwards.

The sequence of events leading to the tragedy is still a puzzle to authorities.

Delmarva Power disconnected electricity to the house in October, when a previous renter lived there, and the company has said no one submitted a request to reconnect it. The Todds moved in later that month.

In March, the power company received a report that a home in the area was using a stolen electric meter. Workers discovered it at the Todd home and disconnected it on March 25.

Todd's work supervisor, Stephanie Wells, has told police he reported for work March 28 but she didn't see him after that.

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When she called police to voice her concern, they went to the home and found the bodies, and word of the tragedy spread.

"I did not even believe it," said Nathalie Sime, 14, a classmate and close friend of the oldest Todd child, as she fought back tears outside the auditorium.

She had just been inside with another classmate, Makayla Tilghman, 15, but said she had been unable to view the bodies.

"Too hard," said Nathalie, adding that her grades at Washington High School, and those of her friends, had dropped off since the deaths.

The family members were dressed in satin-like white inside their caskets, the girls in lacy dresses and tiaras, the boys and their father in suits.

Chambers had chosen their attire.

"They were her angels, and she wanted them to look like angels," said Wyrita Myster, a supervising mortician with Bennie Smith Funeral Homes, which handled the funeral.

Gospel singing, raucous prayer and notes of defiant hope resounded in the auditorium during the funeral.

The Rev. Donna Bowers of Crossroads International Fellowship in Princess Anne, the church the children attended, remembered their father as a man who did his best to make sure they were there on Sundays. She described the seven as "wiggly and giggly — great kids" and said they had grown to embrace the church's teachings.

University of Maryland Eastern Shore president Dr. Juliette Bell cited Scripture as encouragement. Dr. John Gaddis, superintendent of Somerset County Public Schools, extolled the family's closeness, adding that "we have all been touched by stories of [the children's] kindness and the purity of their hearts."

Wells, Todd's supervisor with Thompson Hospitality on campus, called him a devoted father, a genuine person and a man so outgoing that everyone knew when he was around.

"He was the light of our life. … We loved him and we loved the children," she said, battling tears.

Tylicia Bolden, a family friend, read a message of encouragement from President Barack Obama — "my heartfelt condolences are with you," the president wrote — then stood on the stage above the caskets and spoke specifically of each victim, making her way from youngest to oldest.

At the front of the auditorium there was tiny Ty'breyia, or "Brea-Brea," who would have been 6 on April 4. Bolden read from an obituary that described her as "a bright student with beautiful handwriting" who was "already ... writing complete sentences with highly detailed illustrations."

Next was Zhi'heem, 7, a first-grader at Greenwood Elementary School and a young man who "was a charmer and fancied himself a ladies' man."

Beside him was Ty'Niah, who was "respectful, kind to others, helpful and a hard worker," the "kind of student every teacher wanted." She would have turned 9 next month.

Then there was Ty'Nijuiza, 10, who loved borrowing her big sisters' clothes; Ty'Keria, 12, a "good athlete" who was also a "girly-girl"; Cameron, 13, or "Pun," a "gentle giant" at 6-foot-3 who loved basketball and gave his siblings pep talks when needed; and Ty'Juzaina, 15, who loved socializing, the color purple, and "big, dangling earrings."

Rodney Todd's blue coffin lay at the end.

Todd was a man with a troubled past who had recently turned his life around, according to news reports and friends.

He married Chambers in 2007, but the relationship apparently became tumultuous.

Chambers accused Todd of attacking her with a knife in 2011. He later pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and spent a year in jail and 18 months on probation. The couple divorced in November.

By all accounts, though, Todd was a reformed man upon his release, a father who doted on his children.

His mother, Bonnie Edwards, said he "knew the children from the inside out," and family friends have described how he learned to braid the girls' hair, stayed in touch with the children's teachers and even helped teach Ty'Juzaina some dance moves for a school talent contest in which she placed second.

"There was nothing he would not do for [his children], and he always put their needs ahead of his own," Bolden told the audience.

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At the service's end, funeral workers wheeled the caskets single file up the center aisle, into the bright afternoon sun and toward the waiting hearses. Some mourners sobbed and others wore stricken expressions as the vehicles were loaded, their lights flashing.

Earlier, outside the auditorium, family friend Tiffany Wells had struggled to put the tragic events in perspective.

Her two children, Nacirra and Rahmere Brown, were close with the Todds, she said, hosting them for sleepovers and going on out-of-town trips.

The children were lots of fun, creative and energetic types, and in Rodney Todd, she said, they could not have had a more loving father.

"It's a shock to the system," she said.

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